The following is Section 1 from Module 6 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University. These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.
Brainstorming: Revisiting the key concepts
In the previous module we focused on structuring conversations that will expand and integrate our thinking such that new learning is possible. This process is facilitated by applying intentional and thoughtful inquiry to our diversity of experience and perspective. We differentiated between divergent and convergent thinking and underscored the value of conversations that have the potential for taking us outside our comfort zone and into the realm of new possibilities.
We are now at a place in the process where we will intentionally shift from divergent thinking and begin a process of convergent thinking. This shift in the conversations can occur in a couple of different ways. In some conversations we will reach a point where we believe that we have “exhausted” our joint exploration of the issues and begin an intentional shift into looking at options for moving forward. In some cases we are operating within time constraints and we will move to bring closure to the conversation in order to meet our legal and/or regulatory timelines. In other conversations participants will begin to see new possibilities and options emerging from the exploratory conversation. You may begin to hear comments such as, “well you know based on what you have been saying, it seems to me that we might consider . . . The conversation begins shifting almost organically into new and emerging possibilities. As this begins to happen, it is important to note the shift and assess the group’s readiness to move forward. Marking this transition might include:
- Summarizing key points, new learning, and general conclusions
- Identifying both shared and independent interests, and
- Assessing the readiness of people to move into Brainstorming.
Just as in the previous phases of this process it is important to remain intentional with our commitment to mutual purpose and mutual benefit. It is easy to spot the “finish line” and rush through this phase. To do so is to lose the potential benefit of all our joint work up to this point.
In a small text entitled, The Memory Jogger: A Pocket Guide of Tools for Continuous Improvement and Effective Planning, by Michael Brassard and Diane Ritter, the purpose of Brainstorming is:
“to establish a common method for a team to creatively and efficiently generate a high volume of ideas on any topic by creating a process that is free of criticism and judgment.”
There are two important things to note in this description. The first is the idea of creating a “high volume of ideas”. To often Brainstorming ends when we have identified the most logical, and obvious four or five possibilities. We do not allow for time to become creative and explore less obvious but potentially valuable ideas. A professional facilitator once shared with me that it was his experience that the really creative ideas came after about the fifteenth suggestion. I could not remember the last time I was in a group that generated even ten options for consideration.
The second is the idea of a process free of criticism and judgment. This is critical to the effectiveness of the process. Nothing can put a damper on creative thinking faster than the premature negative evaluation of emerging thinking.
Brassard and Ritter go on to state that Brainstorming:
- Encourages open thinking when a team is stuck in “same old way thinking”.
- Gets all team members involved and enthusiastic so that a few people do not dominate the whole group.
- Allows team members to build on each other’s creativity while staying focused on their joint mission.
Brainstorming can be practiced in both a “structured” and “unstructured” format. In a structured format’
- A brainstorming question designed to focus engagement is stated, agreed upon, and posted for everyone to see. It is important to take the time to make sure everyone agrees on and understands this prompt.
- Each member takes turn sharing ideas. Suggestions are shared one at a time and not judged or criticized in any way. Questions may be asked for clarification purposes such that the intent of the suggestion is understood by everyone.
- As ideas are shared they are written down and posted for everyone to see. It is important that the one recording the suggestions uses the exact language of the person making the suggestion.
- Participants continue to make suggestions until all ideas have been shared. It is important to allow time for silence. Do not assume that silence is an indicator that all ideas have been shared. There will be necessary times of silence and reflection as we move from the obvious suggestions into ideas born out of our conversation of integration and shared learning.
The process for unstructured brainstorming is the same as described above with the exception that ideas can be shared at anytime and without any particular order. Some additional things to consider when structuring this phase of the process include:
- The creation of a break between the exploration phase of collaboration and brainstorming. There is value in giving participants time to “step away from the table” and process what they have heard and learned. In some cases people can be instructed to use this time to begin formulating creative suggestion for addressing the issue(s) explored.
- Many of us have experienced groups that use unstructured brainstorming. A potential down side to this method is that it reinforces those who may quickly identify options and penalize those who may need more time for processing and reflection. In addition it gives a certain amount of power to the first responder. Depending on power dynamics in the group, the first person to respond can have a significant impact on subsequent sharing.
- Experience has shown that some groups will make the transition to Brainstorming and then “hit a wall” when asked to begin suggesting options. When this happens it is often indicative of some significant and yet unexplored issue. It often indicates the need to go back into the conversation for exploration and further explore aspects of the issues not yet sufficiently understood.
As a group,use the following questions to increase your shared understanding of Brainstorming:
Identify a time when you experienced Brainstorming as particularly effective.
- Describe the context for this experience.
- What contributed to the effectiveness of the experience?
- What became possible in the context of this process?
In your experience what most supports effective Brainstorming?
In your experience what are the barriers to effective Brainstorming?
What might you do to improve Brainstorming processes in which you are involved?